Books for Christmas

Xmas Recommendations, Vol. 3

From Timothy Noah to Corey Robin.

By 12.19.13

Timothy Noah

Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens was the best novel I read in 2013, though I may not read enough contemporary fiction to be the most reliable judge. It is written and plotted with Lethem’s characteristic energy, grace, and exactitude, and its subject—the delusional Stalinist American left—will please TAS’s conservative readers.

Less pleasing to conservative readers, but also a compelling read, is George Packer’s The Unwinding, which tells the story of America’s three-decade run-up in income inequality through an assortment of lives, some famous and some not. Readers may find irritating Packer’s intermittent attempts to echo John Dos Passos’s USA, but there’s no denying the power of Packer’s narratives about ordinary people. For a (mostly) non-narrative expository treatment of the same history, I recommend my own 2012 book, The Great Divergence. Wrap ‘em up together and tie ‘em with a bow! 

My favorite political book of 2013 was Jeff Shesol’s Mutual Contempt. It was published in 1998, but I only got around to reading it this year, after all the hoopla concerning the latest volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. Shesol writes in greater detail than Caro about the quite remarkable hatred that Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy bore for each other. I can’t remember ever reading another account depicting such seething enmity between two people who never shared a bed. Shesol does a brilliant job showing how Johnson and Kennedy were destined to loathe each other because of the exquisite complementarity of their worst selves (and their mutual inability to perceive the other’s very formidable best self). A treat for political junkies and marriage counselors alike.

Timothy Noah writes twice a week for

Jay Nordlinger

Roger Kimball’s latest book has a peculiar title: The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia. He explains that “this is a book about memory.” It is also “a defense of permanent things at a time when they are conspicuously under siege.” In my own language, this is a book about some of the things that matter most: to a culture, to a society, and to an individual. It is a brilliant book, and an edifying one. While reading it, I felt that I was holding an important volume—one that I would return to over the years. 

Mark Helprin’s latest novel is In Sunlight and in Shadow. It is a blockbuster of a book, a love story, and just about the most intense one you’ll ever read. But it is also a book about honor, duty, religion, war, peace, New York, the theater, sacrifice, justice—maybe about justice above all. It is a big ol’ book, in pages and scope. Bold, brawny, beautiful, unapologetic. It is a book not just for now, but for all time.

Decades ago, it was routine in this Christmas feature of TAS to recommend Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. (I read it so early, it was called A History of the Modern World, from 1917 to the 1980s.) I keep being reminded of the importance of this book. Last summer, a young man told me he was required to read it before beginning an internship at the Wall Street Journal. Later in the summer, Rob Long mentioned on a panel that reading the book was one of the things that shaped him politically. I recently gave it to a young man who asked, basically, “What should I read, to know about things?” So this is a third book “for all time.”

Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review and the author of Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World (Encounter Books).

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Leave It to Psmith, by PG Wodehouse. This is one of the most amusing books that I have ever read and re-reading it gives great pleasure. Two scenes stand out. One is when Psmith meets Freddie wearing a chrysanthemum rather than a carnation owing to Freddie’s lack of horticultural knowledge. The other is when Baxter starts throwing flower pots about in the middle of the night wearing yellow pajamas. They are enough to make anyone laugh out loud, even in public. 

The Fringes of Power, by Sir John Colville. This is the first book of political memoirs that I ever read. Sir John Colville was private secretary to Neville Chamberlain and then Winston Churchill during the war. He was at the center of the most important events and brought them to life in all their excitement and deadly reality. It has led me on to read many subsequent volumes of memoirs.

The Warden, by Anthony Trollope. Although this may not be the best of the Barchester Chronicles, it starts the series off, and when I read it led to a happy summer with Trollope. The characters are vivid and the politics of a local organization only too realistic. It is also a story of unintended consequences where well intentioned people cause distress to the thoroughly good warden who is by no means the target of their reforming zeal. 

George V, by Kenneth Rose. This wonderful biography revealed that George V’s death had been hastened by his doctor, who thought that it would be vulgar for His Majesty’s death to be reported in the Evening Standard rather than in The Times. The ditty “Lord Lawson of Pen has Killed Many Men / And that’s why we sing ‘God Save the King’” turned out to be truer than anyone had thought at the time. It is an elegantly written book on an underrated sovereign.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the Member of Parliament for North East Somerset and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph in London.

Corey Robin 

One of the great embarrassments of being an academic is that I seldom have time to read for pleasure. My reading is instrumental and opportunistic. Even my bedside table is stacked with books related to current projects. (I’m soon going to be writing on various ideas about markets and mobility in 19th-century France. At night I’ve been re-reading Madame Bovary and The Red and the Black. It pains me to read these classics with such a purposeful eye, but what are you going to do?) So my holiday picks tend to fall into a certain genre, and the most recent book I can recommend was published more than a decade ago.

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations will not be unknown to readers here, but some of its arguments might. I hadn’t looked at it since I was an undergraduate. What surprised me on re-reading it was just how much the book depends upon the figure of the worker. The Wealth of Nations begins with the laborer—rather than the merchant, the manufacturer, or the landlord—and much of Smith’s defense of capitalism rests upon the notion that it will improve the lives of the “laboring poor” (a phrase Burke would later take great umbrage at). Smith offers a subtle understanding—absent from most defenses of the market—of the power imbalances between capital and labor; how employers, from their better bargaining position, are able and ready to extract the most damaging contracts from the workers. Smith objects to the regulation of employment less from a commitment to laissez faire than from his belief that the regulator’s “counselors are always the masters.” On the off chance that regulations are “in favour of the workmen,” he supports them as “just and equitable.” But more than these positions and pronouncements, it is Smith’s sense that labor creates and sustains the world—that the workman, as he puts it in his Lectures on Jurisprudence, “supports the whole frame of society” and “bears on his shoulders the whole of mankind”—that marks The Wealth of Nations as a text both timely and untimely.

Across the spectrum—and the Channel—stands Gracchus Babeuf, Smith’s French contemporary. Babeuf was executed by the Directory in 1797 for trying to organize a violent uprising that would have returned France to the Constitution of 1793. In recent years, philosophers like Samuel Fleischacker and Elizabeth Anderson have revived his defense at his trial as one of the foundational texts of distributive justice, the first in a line that will culminate in the work of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. I doubt that will endear him to many readers here, but bear with me! 

What fascinated me most on reading The Defense of Gracchus Babeuf Before the High Court of Vendome was not Babeuf’s plea for equality or his attack on private property, but his account of economic value, how prices are determined in a market society. Babeuf states:

The gulf between rich and poor, rulers and ruled, proceeds from yet another cause, the difference in value and in price that arbitrary opinion attaches to the diverse products of toil and manufacture.

Where Smith thought market prices were determined, above all else, by the cost of production, particularly the cost of labor, Babeuf claims prices are determined by the opinion of buyers, particularly elite buyers. Babeuf here echoes the claims of Burke in his Thoughts on Scarcity (“when any commodity is carried to market, it is not the necessity of the vendor but the necessity of the purchaser that raises the price,” all that matters is “what is the worth to the buyer”). So does Babeuf anticipate the work of late 19th-century economists, including the more conservative economists of the Austrian School, who thought it was the subjective—and ultimately arbitrary—preferences of the buyer that determined the price of goods. While Babeuf is a critic of what will come to be called subjectivism, and Burke and the Austrians are its defenders, I’ve been intrigued by the coincidence between him and Burke. How is it that these two ideological bookends of the French Revolution, within less than two years of each other, came up with such a remarkably similar—and at the time, unconventional—account of the formation of prices and value?

Michael Oakeshott once claimed that friendship and patriotism require a conservative disposition, a gratitude and respect for affections and attachments that have no claim on us other than that they are ours and have been ours for some time. What happens, however, when the obligations of friendship compete with those of patriotism, when loyalty to and love for a friend entails a betrayal of country—or vice versa?

I’ve long been interested in this issue, less as a question of political philosophy than as a fact of historical experience. I’m not sure why, but I can never get enough of the moral drama that ensues between two likeminded souls—lovers, comrades, friends—when one betrays the other for the sake of advancing his cause or position or interests.

While there are many books on this subject—Tina Rosenberg’s The Haunted Land, Lawrence Wechsler’s A Miracle, A Universe, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope against Hope—two have stayed with me over the years. One is Naming Names, Victor Navasky’s study of the men and women in Hollywood who gave up the names of comrades and fellow travelers and thereby helped make the blacklist in the film industry. Few here will have much sympathy for Navasky’s views—which might best be characterized as anti-anticommunist—but even fewer, I suspect, will not be moved by his almost Shakespearean account of the damage people do to each other and to themselves as they struggle to reconcile the competing demands of politics and private life. 

The other book is Miranda Carter’s Anthony Blunt: His Lives. Ever since he was exposed as a Soviet spy in 1979, Blunt has been the subject of speculation and scrutiny. So great are the contradictions of his story that it almost writes itself. A Communist whose friends were killed in the Spanish Civil War was also the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. An art historian whose job it was to detect the fake and the fraud was himself a fake and a fraud. The cool appraiser of classicism was the hot lover of mystery and intrigue. But where most commentators have taken their lead from George Steiner, who found in Blunt an almost arctic inhumanity, Carter offers a warmer, if more depressing, picture. Among friends and colleagues, Blunt was supportive and caring; in the tutorial, he was passionate and engaged. It was this cloistered fraternity rather than grand ideology that led him to become a spy. As his star rose in later life, long after he had ceased to work as a spy, he distanced himself from his past and ultimately his inner life. Ironically, it was as an ex-communist that Blunt most resembled the stereotypical Communist.

Corey Robin is the author of  Fear: The History of a Political Idea and The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. He teaches at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

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